In the coming months, town officials hope to begin laying out a road map to conserving natural resources, acquiring open space, and curtailing bulky residential development to keep Darien's twin identities as a bustling suburb and small town in good balance for the next decade.

While 98 percent of the town's land is considered developed, a potential pressure in the next 10 years that could change the town's character is bigger buildings exacerbated by a drive to build up Darien, First Selectman Jayme Stevenson told members of the town's Planning & Zowning Commission Monday night.

A discussion of "regionalization" among towns and cities in Fairfield County could lead to urbanization, specifically through discussions about potentially more intense development of land around train stations in Darien and Noroton Heights, Stevenson said.

"There seems to be quite a push to really urbanize small towns like Darien," Stevenson said. "I would ask the commission to think about the utilization of the word `urbanization' in reference to us wishing to remain a small New England town."

On Monday night, members of the Darien Board of Selectmen offered guidance and suggestion to members of the zoning commission and Glenn Chalders, who works for consultant Planimetrics on garnering the correct input to assure the study hones in on the town's true land use problems and potential.

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Technically, the state requires towns to update the document every 10 years to remain eligible for discretionary grant funding.

But traditionally, land use and town officials have also considered the document an important way to eliminate lax regulations that lead to excessive development and catalyze preservation and open space acquisition efforts.

This spring, the town's Planning & Zoning Commission plans to begin to construct draft versions of the plan covering the town's needs to conserve natural and coastal resources, guide business and residential development, and keep pace with needed infrastructure like roads, transit and utilities.

The group is starting with a discussion of the town's conservation needs and goals, including addressing water quality and quantity, acquiring land and funding other projects that would help reduce flooding risk using federal emergency grant money and other money, and preserving and expanding coastal access.

The early draft of the conservation plan calls for the town to continue a strategy of acquiring land next to Pear Tree Point and Weed beaches as a way to enhance public access for residents.

Chalders said the plan will catalog the town's coastal access assets, including access for boating, swimmers and also visual access of the water along the shore. The plan also will look at steps that could be taken to improve resiliency of low-lying areas in the short and longer term, including anticipating likely ways to mitigate the impact of major recurring events like hurricanes, storms and blizzards that can cause flooding, Chalders said.

Reining in growth

Stevenson and other members of the board agreed the time has come to enact stronger regulations on floor area ratio to restrict the amount of a given property a building will cover and also limit the amount of impervious surfaces like patios and driveways on lots.

Steven Olvanny, vice chairman of the zoning commission, said even with the town's land largely built out, the current lack of stringent floor area ratio regulations gives land use officials little control over building heights or size.

"When you see a three-bedroom house go to a five-bedroom house in six months, that increases the need for school-age programs for kids," Olvanny said. "I don't prescribe to this notion the town is 97 percent built. Manhattan has been 100 percent built for a century and there are more cranes there than ever."

Those greater rates of ground coverage on properties in conjunction with poor soil quality can create downstream flooding, Zoning Commission chairwoman Susan Cameron said.

"The question is do we have the tools in place or not to manage it," Cameron said.

Susan Marks said the plan should also address within current limitations the ability to establish walking paths and better crosswalks and other amenities for pedestrians and bicyclists on major roads.

"I would love to see more walking paths but there are certain limitations and I can't change that," Marks said.

Open space

Cameron and Olvanny said the plan will also need to address the need to acquire open space to improve both recreation and town operations, and to mitigate problems like flooding.

This year the town approved bonding to pay up to $1.925 million to buy a little over half an acre parcel at 4 Short Lane next to Weed Beach, and also approved money to buy 32 Hoyt St. to enable an expansion of Holmes School.

"But there is never enough money," Cameron said.

Documents associated with the town plan can be viewed at http://www.darienct.gov/townplan.